Thursday, April 12, 2007

D.A. Craig Watkins Makes A Difference

New Prosecutor Revisits Justice in Dallas

District Attorney Embraces Innocence Project and 'Smart on Crime' Approach

Washington Post Staff Writer

Sworn in as Dallas County district attorney on Jan. 1 -- he is the first elected black district attorney in Texas -- Watkins fired or accepted the resignations of almost two dozen high-level white prosecutors and began hiring minorities and women.

And in an unprecedented act for any jurisdiction in the nation, he announced he would allow the Texas affiliate of the Innocence Project to review hundreds of Dallas County cases dating back to 1970 to decide whether DNA tests should be conducted to validate past convictions. At 12 in the past five years, Dallas has more post-conviction DNA exonerations than any county in the nation and more than at least two states. A 13th exoneration, of a Dallas County man, is expected to be announced within days.
Of the 12 men exonerated, 9 were African American. Who is Craig Watkins that he would be concerned enough about the notion of justice to invite the Innocence Project to examine convictions obtained by the district attorney's office?
He's black, he's a Democrat, he's young, he was a defense lawyer with an office in a southside neighborhood, and he has no prosecutorial experience -- unless he counts a year-long internship handling misdemeanors in the city prosecutor's office. His two previous applications to work as an assistant district attorney in Dallas County were rejected, in fact, by an office in which a prosecutor once produced a manual on how to exclude minorities from Texas juries.
On paper, Watkins appears to be the last person who would be elected D.A. in Dallas County or anywhere else in Texas. Nevertheless, his is a story that illustrates how one can never underestimate the resolve of a citizenry fed up with the status quo:
In November, Watkins, 39, was elected as part of a Democratic sweep in Dallas in which the party took 42 judgeships and six other countywide offices. He is the first Democratic district attorney in 20 years. During the campaign he promised to be "smart on crime," not just tough on crime; to ask for the death penalty when appropriate but also to advocate for better rehabilitation programs and post-release support services for ex-convicts.
As stated by Senator Barbara Boxer, elections have consequences. Fortunately for the people of Dallas County, those consequences include having a district attorney who wants to make sure the right people are behind bars. Watkins' decision to open all the office's cases to scrutiny by the Innocence Project represents a monumental change in policy as pointed out in a Chicago Tribune article :
The new district attorney is taking aim at the many disputed convictions during the law-and-order tenure of the late Henry Wade, who was top prosecutor from 1951 to 1987 and is known nationally for his role in Roe vs. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court case that legalized abortion.

"The mentality of the office at that time was, 'I don't care if there is some doubt, let's make sure we keep up our conviction rate,'" Watkins said.

The new prosecutor, who is 6-foot-5 and soft-spoken, acknowledges that critics call his approach "hug-a-thug." But he says, "We're not being soft on crime. We're being sure we get the right person going to jail.
The next man to be exonerated will be the 13th since 2001 and out of those, the 10th African American:

James Curtis Giles, 53, has spent nearly half of his life, including 10 years in prison and 14 years on the sex offender registry, trying to prove his innocence in a 1982 rape case.

Giles' exoneration would be the third in Dallas County since Watkins took office. On Monday, more than a decade after Giles' release, a prosecutor acknowledged the arrest had been a case of mistaken identity, and a judge recommended he be exonerated. The final step is for an appeals court to approve.

Giles was found guilty in 1983 of participating in a 1982 gang rape of a pregnant woman. The victim picked him out of a photo lineup, even though he was bigger and a decade older than the teenage assailant she initially described to police. That identification was the only evidence linking Giles to the crime. The victim never saw him in person until the trial. He was the only black man in the courtroom besides a bailiff.

At this point it's impossible to predict how Watkins will fare as district attorney. One can only hope that he continues to exercise sound judgment while keeping the political wolves at bay. It's unavoidable that Watkins will be viewed as a black man releasing other black men from prison, and that's not going to sit well with a lot of folks. However, I remain cautiously optimistic that this represents a major step forward in criminal justice reform.

Cross post from make it plain


Brian said...

Interesting story.

I'm all for being "tough on crime"...but I am also aware of the problem of wrongful conviction, and how poor folks in particular are not afforded effective legal representation.

Due to underfunding of the Public Defenders offices across the country, the accused are often encouraged to accept pleas to crimes that they may not have committed...or crimes that they are not fully responsible for.

There is also the issue of disparity in sentencing...based on race/class.

The innocence project has been highlighting this problem across the country.

I wonder if this effort could be duplicated elsewhere.

Two cases of wrongful conviction

Missouri man freed after 11 years

Georgia man freed from prison

An excellent PBS frontline Documentary called "The Plea" gets down to what some of the underlying issues are surrounding this problem.

You can view online here

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I'll be watching this guy to see what other good things he'll do.

gary walker said...

hello , my name is kimberly walker
and all of this is so right, my brother gary walker was wrougfully convicted of a crime and has been locked up for the past 16 years he was giving a court appointed lawyer who really did not care if they won or lost , my brother was 16 years old when this happened and my mother, was a single mother of 3 and only had the means to pay the bills my brother was not given a fare chance his whole life was taking away and also my life my mothers and my younger brother at the time of this life changing event i was only a little girl and could not do much for my brother but now as an adult i have been trying my best and giving my all to prove his innocence and thats why the first step i took was to vote for someone who cared about people who has been wrongfully convicted i know this site is just for comments but this is my brother and my family's life and we want it back before we really cant see each other again, in life every one deserves a second chance
and thats all that we are asking we want to prove my brothers innocence
but the systhem wont give us a chance my brother has been denied dna testing he has been denied of his life the system made a mistake
and or family just want justice to
prevail .........